In the UK? Science (might) need You!

Back off, it's SCIENCE. Photo: BigStockPhoto.
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This week I finally met my local MP for the first time. If I’d been on the ball I’d even have got a photo to prove it, but it’s just as well I didn’t as I was hav­ing an ill day, so I would have simply looked sick and sweaty next to him. Instead here’s some concept art you can pre­tend sym­bol­ises polit­ics and science.

Back off, it's SCIENCE. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

Back off, it’s SCIENCE. Photo: BigStockPhoto.

The reason I was meet­ing him was an inter­view for the Evidence Information Service. I first heard of this back in March and thought I ought to do some­thing about it. The idea is that while the civil ser­vice and par­lia­ment­ary research­ers can do a good job, they’re not experts on everything. It wouldn’t be sane to expect them to be. The Evidence Information Service is a pro­posal that there could be a sys­tem to provide MPs with expert advice on top­ics. The first step for such a ser­vice would be work­ing out what MPs want and what they could use.

This is where you and I come in.

The EIS is look­ing for local cham­pi­ons to inter­view their MPs (and AMs if you live in Wales). There’s a ques­tion­naire to see what it is that MPs are look­ing for. They already have plenty of people lin­ing up to give them inform­a­tion. Is there a way that sci­ent­ists can con­trib­ute more sig­nal than noise?

This obvi­ously isn’t March. I was busy at the time and things like this tend to get put off into the to-do list and then for­got­ten as more stuff gets added. The spur to sign up and get it done came via Kevin Folta. In par­tic­u­lar the first image in this post.

It’s not reas­on­able to assume MPs and AMs will pick up my dis­ap­proval of poor sci­ence through some kind of psychic osmosis. There are many reas­ons why fringe ideas might get pushed. Sincere belief and mis­un­der­stand­ing is one. Another reason might be eco­nomic interest. Taking a small step to counter-balance this seemed more pro­duct­ive to me than put­ting an X in a box every five years, as a polit­ical action.

As it hap­pens it was a reas­on­ably pain­less exer­cise. The EIS provided a basic ques­tion­naire, and Roger Williams made time for me at the local con­stitu­ency office. As it hap­pens Brecon and Radnorshire is the largest con­stitu­ency out­side Scotland in the UK, so local was a bit farther for me that it might be for you, but it was simple enough.

I can’t say what he said, as the res­ults are going to be anonymised. But I did find him and his office very open and help­ful. It’s a reminder of what a bad advert for MPs the House of Commons is. I cer­tainly learned some things about how Politics works that made my head spin.

If you are keen for bet­ter sci­ence in polit­ics, then it’s worth check­ing out the EIS wel­come let­ter and see­ing if you live in a con­stitu­ency without a local cham­pion. If mys­ti­cism in Westminster makes you grumpy, then you can at least be sat­is­fied you’ve done your bit.

The ancients and meteors

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There are all sorts of cyc­lical events that ancient peoples are thought to be inter­ested in, sol­stices, lunar cycles and eclipses. What rarely seems to get atten­tion are met­eor showers. It might seem odd, they’re annual, hap­pen­ing at the same point in the Earth’s orbit. They can also be spec­tac­u­lar. So why don’t they get much atten­tion from archae­oastro­nomers? There are prob­ably a couple of reasons.

Meteor and Pleiades

Meteor and Pleiades. Photo: Luis Argerich / Flickr.

One is that there’s not a lot of clear his­tor­ical evid­ence that met­eor showers were pre­dict­able in the ancient world. The ancient cer­tainly saw met­eor showers, one of my favour­ites is Plutarch writ­ing on pleasure:

…[P]leasures, like gales of soft wind, move sim­per­ing, one towards one extreme of the body and another towards another, and then go off in a vapor. Nor are they of any long dur­ance, but, as so many glan­cing met­eors, they are no sooner kindled in the body than they are quenched by it.

It’s clear that who­ever wrote that must have been famil­iar with fleet­ing met­eors showers. There’s also evid­ence of peri­odic obser­va­tions for met­eors, again from Plutarch, but these weren’t annual events. From his bio­graphy of Agis, a king of Sparta:

Every ninth year the eph­ors select a clear and moon­less night, and in silent ses­sion watch the face of the heav­ens. If, then, a star shoots across the sky, they decide that their kings have trans­gressed in their deal­ings with the gods, and sus­pend them from their office, until an oracle from Delphi or Olympia comes to the suc­cour of the kings thus found guilty.

Plutarch — Agis 11.3

Every ninth year in this case means every eighth, because of inclus­ive count­ing. It seems that while met­eors were well-known in the ancient world they were unex­pec­ted. If you count your cal­en­dar against the moon, as most ancient cul­tures did, then events like sol­stices hap­pen on dif­fer­ent days of the year. So too would met­eor showers. Along with the vagar­ies of weather and they tend to be vari­able in strength any­way, it might be less of a sur­prise that they weren’t pre­dicted and planned around.

It’s not just his­tor­ical evid­ence we could look for though. Continue read­ing

Ken Ham slams religion

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For a man who claims to be reli­gious, Ken Ham cer­tainly has a neg­at­ive view of reli­gion. io9 reports that he has denounced the Smithsonian for pro­mot­ing nat­ur­al­ism. So when he wanted to den­ig­rate nat­ur­al­ism why did he use the word reli­gion?

It’s rare that any­one poin­tedly say­ing sci­ence is a reli­gion, is using the term reli­gion in a pos­it­ive sense.

So to cel­eb­rate, I’ve added Religion as a new Creationism Card.

Religion as a creationism card

Creationism Cards, col­lect the set!

In pos­sibly related news, I’ve had an uptick in end-times email in my inbox.

5 Years On — Chemotherapy Works

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I wrote someone out of my will today.

It was five years ago I had chemo­ther­apy for can­cer. It should have been six, but I held off get­ting a dia­gnosis because I was in the last year of my PhD and help­ing out with eld­erly rel­at­ives. I wasn’t strictly in denial about hav­ing can­cer, but the tim­ing was bad. Relatives died which caused more prob­lems. When another close rel­at­ive was hos­pit­al­ised it was obvi­ous there wasn’t going to be a con­veni­ent time.

I was dia­gnosed on a Monday after­noon and oper­ated on the fol­low­ing day. It wasn’t that bad a situ­ation, someone else had can­celled their oper­a­tion due to snow. I was offered either their spot, or else wait a few weeks for the oper­a­tion. Hanging around with the tumour inside me seemed like a really bad idea, so in I went. The follow-up was a brief course of chemotherapy.

There’s been a lot writ­ten about how bad chemo­ther­apy is, but I had no prob­lem. Here’s a selfie from five years ago while I’m hav­ing chemotherapy.

chemo selfie

I pottered around the house and had no trouble at all. I didn’t have any prob­lem, though one day I did fancy some Jaffa Cakes and there were none in the house. So I went out to the shops to get some. This is a map of how far away the shop was.

Map via Google Maps.

Map via Google Maps

I was tired well before the first corner. Continue read­ing

Mick Aston

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Mick Aston was prob­ably the best-known archae­olo­gist in the UK. I’d also go so far as to say that he was the most influ­en­tial archae­olo­gist of the last 25 years.

Mick Aston

Mick Aston (centre). Photo by Wessex Archaeology.

The reason is Time Team, an archae­olo­gical series on Channel 4. If Sky at Night is Astronomy then Time Team when Mick Aston was in it was archae­ology. Its suc­cess massively expan­ded the uptake of archae­ology by stu­dents. Mick Aston’s idea was respons­ible sup­port­ing an incal­cul­able num­ber of jobs in uni­ver­sity depart­ments. It’s easy to over­look was an aston­ish­ing idea Time Team was.

The tra­di­tional doc­u­ment­ary places the aca­demic speaker at the author­ity speak­ing Truth. A recent example is Rise of the Continents, where Mantle Plumes are presen­ted as unques­tioned fact as noted in the post at The Theatre of Reason. A com­mon grumble is that sci­ence is a pro­cess not a body of fact, so how do you show pro­cess? Mick Aston reckoned you could pro­duce a usable brief eval­u­ation of an archae­olo­gical site in three days and this became Time Team. A cam­era crew fol­lowed an archae­olo­gical team as they dug for three days.

Below I’ve embed­ded the epis­ode from Blaenavon, which I hope 4oDDocumentaries have made widely access­ible.* You could make a drink­ing game from the num­ber of times someone says they don’t know some­thing. To steal a line from Paul Bahn: it’s not about find­ing things, it’s about find­ing things out.

As a meas­ure of impact, I offer another series, Bonekickers. Bonekickers was an attempt by the Life on Mars team to pro­duce a drama around an archae­ology unit. It was laughed out of the sched­ules because Time Team had demon­strated to a large chunk of the UK pop­u­la­tion how archae­ology worked. To be fair Bonekickers was pretty awful in its own right, but it’s thanks to the impact of Time Team that it became truly ris­ible. Can you ima­gine that hap­pen­ing with any other aca­demic discipline?

Mick Aston’s influ­ence meant that he became a ste­reo­type of an archae­olo­gist in his own time. That could sound snide, but rather it’s a meas­ure of how loved by the pub­lic he was.

He also had the poten­tial to keep innov­at­ing. After leav­ing Time Team, he’d been work­ing with Timothy Taylor on Dig Village. In some ways he was in the twi­light of his career, but he still could have shone for many years like the even­ing star.

Photo Time Team in Salisbury by Wessex Archaeology. This image licensed under a Creative Commons by-nc-sa licence.

*I’m not optim­istic that it’s vis­ible bey­ond the UK. You can search for Time Team on YouTube, but embed­ding those videos isn’t sens­ible. Uploading a pro­gramme whole­sale, breach­ing the copy­right isn’t neg­ated by say­ing “No infringe­ment of copy­right is inten­ded”. These videos will be com­ing down sooner or later. My per­sonal favour­ite epis­ode is prob­ably Llygadwy / Celtic Spring, but that’s not so typ­ical of the series.

Want a happy holiday? Pray for an Arctic blast Telegraph tells numerate readers.

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Dr Arnall’s hap­pi­ness for­mula is: O + (N x S) + Cpm/T + He. Put more simply, a numer­ical value for being out­doors (O) was added to nature (N) mul­ti­plied by social inter­ac­tion (S), added to child­hood sum­mer memor­ies and pos­it­ive thoughts (Cpm) divided by tem­per­at­ure (T), and added to hol­i­day excite­ment (He).

So explains the Daily Telegraph. When divid­ing a smal­ler denom­in­ator gives a big­ger num­ber. 1/10 is a big­ger num­ber than 1/100 des­pite 100 being big­ger than 10. When T approaches zero Cpm/T approaches infin­ity. Dr Arnall is we will be hap­pi­est when T = 0. That’s a sum­mer where the tem­per­at­ure hits freez­ing point if you’re meas­ur­ing in Centigrade,* when you’ll be infin­itely happy. If you’re meas­ur­ing in Fahrenheit you’ll be euphoric when the tem­per­at­ure reaches the equi­val­ent of –18ºC.

What’s pain­ful to read is that he doesn’t seem to under­stand his own for­mula. He’s quoted as say­ing: “June has also seen some warm weather after the cold spring, with people hop­ing more warm spells are ahead,” without warn­ing that in his fantasy this warm weather would be less pleas­ing than cold and drizzle.

*Anders Celsius ori­gin­ally set his scale the other way round, so that boil­ing point was 0º and water froze at 100º. Despite this, I strongly doubt Dr Arnall would he happy if someone tripped and spilled the con­tents of a boil­ing kettle over him.